Monday, February 28, 2011

Guys Read: Guest Post by Paul Vogt on Comics You Should Know

Welcome to the first in our series of posts for Guys Read week. Today, Paul Vogt of The Hopeless Gamer joins us to talk about comic books -- find out what you've been missing and what you can lead your rabid readers to. Your to-read list is guaranteed to expand.

I'm here to talk to you about comic books. I grew up on the things, and they taught me how much fun reading could be. I learned about prejudice (the X-men's mutants), critical thinking (Batman's detective skills), and Christ-figures (All of Superman) as a result of reading comic books as a kid. I learned the definition of "uncanny" by the time I made it to third grade. As a media, comic books have followed me since grade school through high school and beyond grad school. All the while, I was maturing as a reader and comics were continuing to evolve as a medium.

Comics are a funny thing. Right now is a fantastic time to be reading comics. There's a bit of a creative rennasaince in the industry even as book sales seem to diminish on a monthly basis. And then there's the question of digital publishing. Comics are a unique medium in that they are usually endless serial stories where some have more than 40 years of continuity clogging up their histories. If you go to any superhero or comic, forum you'll easily find pages and pages of discussions all asking the same question: where can I jump on and start reading comic X? The assumption here is that you have to read all of the Avengers or the Justice League's enormous backlog of stories in order to catch up and start enjoying the stories being told today. Guess what? You don't. You can jump in feet first (maybe with some helpful suggestions by yours truly - see below) and start getting a kick out of comics right away.

There are several routes you can take when starting to get into (or returning to) comics. Every Wednesday sees the release of new issues from DC, Marvel, Image, and many other smaller imprints and publishers. These single issues are often referred to as "floppys" and often get "bagged and boarded" by collectors. In other words, you read single comic issues as most people imagine them and then put them into storage. Alternatively, digital comics are quickly growing in popularity as digital distribution models continue to be discussed and developed by the bigger publishers. There are countless apps out there dedicated to making it easier to read comics on your ipad or smartphone.

Ah, but there is a third option, and it's the option that your humble writer chooses on a regular basis. While you could have boxes and boxes of single issues collecting runs of your favorite titles, or you could jam your phone or tablet full of comic files, I prefer collected issues that resemble a book more than a magazine. I'm sure you're familiar with graphic novels as a medium, and these are what I'm going to be talking about today. Technically I'm going to be talking about trade paperbacks specifically. The difference is in the formatting of the story. A graphic novel is a book that was put together specifically to be in a collected format and is released in the collected format primarily. A trade paperback (or TPB) is what you get when you combine a series of comics from a singular, or string of singular storylines. These can range from three issues to huge omnibus collections of 25 issues or more.

I wanted to come up with some suggestions for you to try out, but I'm doing my best to steer away from titles and books you might already know about. I could suggest Watchmen, The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, or The Dark Knight Returns, but where would the fun be in that? Instead I've selected some titles which would probably not be considered ground breaking suggestions from comic readers but would serve as a good introduction to some very broad genres of comics. My aim is also to provide some suggestions that you may actually be able to find somewhere other than on Amazon (such as your local library... maybe!). So without further ado, here are some comics to try out.

The Immortal Iron Fist Volume 1: The Last Iron Fist Story (Marvel Comics)

by Matt Fraction (writer) and David Aja (artist)

"...Tiger Scratch (Second Stance). Drunken Wasp Sting. Good Fortune Thunder Kick. Brooklyn Headbutt."

Iron Fist is a classic example of a modern comic writer taking a classic 70's superhero character and updating him for the 21st century. Iron Fist, also known as Danny Rand, is a living weapon kung fu master of the secret city Kun'Lun. Sounds pretty cheesy, right? I did mention it's originally from the 70's, but Fraction, with the help of Aja's art, has taken the character in a completely new direction. In this relaunch of the title, he does a creative job of imagining a whole backstory to the character spanning centuries. It gives a truly epic feel to the character, and the revelation early on that Danny is the 67th Iron Fist is felt as a true revelation to the reader as much as it is to the character. It's a street-level action comic right at its heart, and plays like a classy version of the 70's mystic kung fu flick.

Iron Fist moves at a break-neck pace and ends up feeling a little bit like the original Highlander movie (you'll have to read it to discovery how). Aja's art is realistic without being too photographic. Its got just the perfect amount of illustration to really communicate the character's thoughts and reactions. The story is complete on its own, but it also works as a very nice set-up for the rest of the on-going series and follow-up TPB volumes. Danny faces some tough challenges in this first collection, but hints of more living weapons (something unheard of before Fraction's reboot of the character) and a tournament to the death just works to amp up the excitement of the series by giving it a real purpose and direction.

Astonishing X-Men Volumes 1 - 4: Gifted, Dangerous, Torn, Unstoppable (Marvel Comics)
by Joss Whedon (writer) and John Cassaday (artist)

The Thing: "Didn't they come up with a cure for your kind?"
Wolverine: "You got a problem with mutants?"
The Thing: "I meant Canadians."

General fans of genre television will recognize Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) while comic fans will equally get their interests piqued when they see John Cassaday's name. I'll be honest, I grew up loving the X-Men, but even I will admit that they can be too much for the casual fan to wrap their minds around. With more bizzare plot twists and a cast larger than a Pynchon novel, things can get complicated real quick. Astonishing clears that all away. Whedon knows his X-Men. You don't need to know anything going into the book, and the chemistry between the team members is still going to be instantly recognizable. If you like any of Whedon's shows, particularly for the dialogue, you can't go wrong here.

Of course if it was just a bunch of good dialogue, it wouldn't be one of my favorite runs of all time. The four volumes of Astonishing X-Men tells a complete story and gives all six team members very full, very satisfying character arcs. The plot focuses around a new villain (and eventually new alien world) that takes all the things that makes the X-Men great and makes them relatable. The character, an alien from a world created for the run, is out to kill all the X-Men since his people received the prophesy that an X-Man will one day destroy their world. Although the plots cover many different areas, there's always the constant threat of this new alien menace lingering in the background. Cassaday's redesign of some of the characters, specifically fan favorites like Wolverine, Cyclops, and Beast, are iconic and re-conceptualize the costumes to somehow be both serious and heroic in a classic superhero kind of way. By the time you get to volume 4, Unstoppable, you will be gripped by the story's climax. You'll both cheer and get tearful before the end of the story, and you'll be loving it the whole time. You want a classic superhero team book? You'll find nothing better than Whedon and Cassaday's run of Astonishing X-Men.

Batwoman: Elegy (DC Comics)

by Greg Rucka (writer) and J.H. Williams III (artist)

Jake (Batwoman's Father): "Who were you talking to?"
Kate Kane/Batwoman: "Hmm?"
Jake: "Transcript time oh-four-forty-two hours. Suit GPS puts you just north of Tricorner, at Lake Street. Just after you questioned Rush... Who were you talking to?"
Kate Kane: "That, sir, was the Batman."

You don't have to know that Bruce Wayne just returned from the dead (really, he did... sort of) to enjoy this one-shot Batwoman story. Kate Kane, the Batwoman, is possibly my favorite new character to be introduced in comics since I don't know when. She feels authentic as a character in way that, regrettably, few other female superheroes can express. Sadly she's such a new character that there really aren't that many other stories out there with her starring in them, but Elegy offers a high enough degree of story crafting combined with the most talented and creative artist in the biz today that you will come away satisfied. Layouts and story-telling are two things you hear a lot about when talking artists, and J.H. Williams III is pretty much the king of both. Picture the Sunday comics with three to six panel stories per strip. A lot of mainstream comics still follow this formula, but the trailblazers try to tell a story through the use of their panel layout, often ignoring the confines of the box altogether. In Elegy, you get to see a master at work.

That's not to say that Greg Rucka should be ignored. Rucka is known not only in the comic industry but also for his novels in his ability to tell a mystery. Elegy is really a story arc out of the Detective Comics title (where Batman first appeared way back when), and Rucka's run on writing Detective is epic in its own right. Again, like the previous two titles, the villain in the story is original and self-contained to the TPB they appear in, and it's a boon to the storytelling. Rucka can do anything with the villain in his story, especially when you compare her to classic Batman rogues like the Penguin or the Riddler. This freedom adds a natural layer of tension and excitement in the fact that she is much less predictably than the traditional villains. On a totally unrelated note, Rachel Maddow wrote the introduction for Elegy, so that's gotta count for something, right?

All-Star Superman Volumes 1 and 2 (DC Comics)

by Grant Morrison (writer) and Frank Quitely (artist)

Lex Luthor (to Clark Kent): "You wanted my story 'The Gospel of Lex' and now you have it. There's no deep psychology behind the struggle between Superman and me. It's all very simple. How would you feel if someone deliberately stood in your way, over and over again?"

A lot of people don't like Superman. A lot of people just haven't read All-Star Superman yet. You hear a lot of complaints about how boring Superman stories are because he's all-powerful. It's basically the novelist's equivalent to writing an interesting story where God is the protagonist. I have similar memories of Superman. I loved the Justice League as a kid, but I always liked the Batman side of the story much better than the Superman side. All-Star Superman is the story of Superman summed up in 12 amazing issues. All the distractions of the DC universe are stripped away and what's left is the core Superman cast and basic dilemna of the Christ-like character. Instead of trying to explore a new angle, Grant Morrison, a modern-day legend in the industry, dives in head-first and tries to discover just how difficult it can be for the Man of Steel to save all of humanity.

Morrison and Quitely are well-known for their collaborations. You can pretty much put money on any random book with both of their names on it being solid gold. To me, All-Star is at the top of this list. It's the purest form of superhero story-telling out there from any creative team. Where Astonishing X-Men gives the perfect team book, All-Star shows what the best superhero in the world is capable of accomplishing. Each of the 12 issues can be picked up on its own and enjoyed as a complete story, but you can feel the underpinnings of the overall theme shining through. Superman is dying. Superman wants to do as much good for humanity as possible before he dies. Go!

Tom Strong Deluxe Edition Volume 1 (America's Best Comics)

by Alan Moore (writer) and Chris Sprouse (artist)

"This is Tom Strong. Please stay calm everyone..."

It would be downright irresponsible of me to not include an Alan Moore book in a list of comic recommendations. There's so much to choose from (including the above-mentioned Watchmen) when it comes to Alan Moore, I wanted to stick to something that wasn't too cerebral, too self-referential or "meta", and something that could be taken on its own merits as a stand-alone story. Tom Strong also has the benefit of being a book of every genre. It's basically Alan Moore's creative playground. In this first hardcover collection you've got stories about futuristic Aztecs, parallel worlds, the Old West, super-sentient computers, Disney-style cartoon characters, and of course, Nazis. Tom Strong, the titular character is a super-scientist born and raised on a diet of pure pulp action. He's a hulking man, but he invents technology like no one else. It's truly a science fiction book in superhero clothing.

But like all these recommendations, Tom Strong has more to offer than fantastic, complex plots. Tom would be nothing without his family, including his wife, daughter, talking gorilla, and antique robot butler that practically raised him from birth (of course invented by his father). As silly as this all sounds (and you can bet Moore is challenging the reader's assumptions by including them), each character is fleshed out with great detail. In fact, my only complaint in this first volume is that Tom doesn't actually get that much screen time compared to the rest of his family. Comics are known for a couple of different subgenres within the overall superhero genre. You've got your lone street warriors like Iron First, your teams like the X-Men, but no sampling of comics could be complete without a proper family book. Think the Fantastic Four, and you're on the right track. Tom Strong offers a lot of fun, original ideas, but at its core it offers a look at a super family trying their best to balance the common good with what's good for the family.

Continue reading...

Welcome to Guys Read Week!

As anyone who has spent any time on the blog knows, I am passionate about guy reads. There is so much out there for guy reads, but so little is paid attention to it. To celebrate and highlight the great things about guy lit, we're throwing a Guys Read week here at Stacked.

Stay tuned this week for book reviews, guest posts, and a resource list for those who want to learn more about the topic or those who are interested in good guy reading. We've got a giveaway, as well. We'll hit on comic books, sports books, capturing the male voice, and much, much more. I'm excited by the variety of voices and stories we get to highlight this week.

Hop into the discussion and share your experiences and thoughts on all things guys read this week. Share these things widely and feel free to add your two cents. We're open for discussion!

Continue reading...

Saturday, February 26, 2011

In My Mailbox (25)

Welcome to In My Mailbox, a weekly meme hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren. It's a weekly look at the books received for review, from the library, or purchased in the last week.

This looks like a quiet week, but I did check out about 6 books from the library. I left them there, though, since I'm going to be reading them next week in preparation for a middle school book talk.

On another note: next week, come back for Guys Read Week here at STACKED. Abby will be hosting AudioSynced again so we can bring you a collection of book reviews, resources, and guest posts all about the importance of guy reading. You are in for a treat!

Without further ado.

For Review:

Miles From Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams (St Martins, available now): I think Carol Lynch Williams is on my top ten authors list, so to say I'm excited about her new book would be an understatement. Main character is 13 again and the story revolves around her mother's mental illness. It sounded a little reminiscent of Holly Schindler's A Blue So Dark.

Angelfire by Courtney Allison Molton (Harper Collins, available now): A fantasy. I know it's gotten some rave reviews, but it's not really my thing, so I'll be passing this one off to my teens at work.

Abandon by Meg Cabot (Scholastic, April 27): Cabot's new book is billed as way different in tone than her others -- edgy and sexy. The cover reminds me a lot of her adult novel.

Continue reading...

Friday, February 25, 2011

Blog Tour: Mad Love by Suzanne Selfors

When you're the daughter of the bestselling Queen of Romance, life should be pretty good. But 16-year-old Alice Amorous has been living a lie ever since her mother was secretly hospitalized for mental illness. After putting on a brave front for months, time is running out. The next book is overdue, and the Queen can't write it. Alice needs a story for her mother—and she needs one fast.

That's when she meets Errol, a strange boy who claims to be Cupid, who insists that Alice write about the greatest love story in history: his tragic relationship with Psyche. As Alice begins to hear Errol's voice in her head and see things she can't explain, she must face the truth—that she's either inherited her mother's madness, or Errol is for real.

Summary from Goodreads

Mad Love was a quick, enjoyable read that simultaneously managed to be light while also covering the fairly heavy topic of mental illness. While some young adult books of late have covered the subject of mental illness in a main character, the mental illness of a close family member--and the ramifications of this illness--has not been seen as often.

Alice is a well-developed, three-dimensional character. She worries about her mother's health and about how to support her family and keep their finances on track. Even though Alice never truly interacts with her mother until the novel's conclusion, we witness her deep love for family in her inner monologues, actions, and visits to her mother's mental health facility. Yet at the same time as she struggles with these unique problems, we see Alice deal with the same feelings that many adolescents have: she crushes on Tony, a boy in town who skateboards past her window every morning, and constantly fights with Realm, another girl living in her building whose goth tendencies and pushy "read my manuscript and get it published" pleadings get on Alice's last nerve. Alice also harbors deep fears that she herself will develop bipolar disorder and that this so-called Cupid who appears in front of her is irrefutable evidence of her own mental illness. Her moments of panic are realistic and vivid.

Another plus of Mad Love was the fantastic supporting cast of "family-friends," the other people who live in the house that Alice's mother owns, who rent out rooms and serve as a surrogate family for Alice. Mrs. Bobot and Reverend Ruttle obviously care for Alice, and it is refreshing to see such an extended family in a YA novel.

As a whole, the book was enjoyable. However, many aspects just didn't quite work for me, most notably Errol. For a character who was supposed to be Cupid himself, the embodiment of love, Errol the boy never seemed to be fully realized. He was too quiet, too moody, too loath to reveal crucial information, both to Alice herself and to the reader. While this reticence was partially explained by the plot, Errol's personality really got in the way of my enjoyment of his character and his character's relationship with Alice.

The first part of Mad Love also dragged a bit, as Alice took way too long to believe Errol's story and agree to help him with his memoirs. This "buying in" was crucial to the plot, and holding back Alice's realization and belief for so long really slowed down the novel's momentum.

Ultimately, however, I did enjoy Mad Love. It was a quick, slightly fluffy read that was perfect for both pre- and post- Valentine's Day. It was also incredibly refreshing to see bipolar disease presented as something that can be conquered and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Continue reading...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Bone by Jeff Smith

Thorn & Fone Bone are a little worse for wear.
Bone is such an important comic book series for kids, but I had never heard of it until I started my job a little over a year ago.  It's immensely popular - I saw so many kids check out the volumes, we had many copies that ended up lost or missing (always a sign of popularity), and even the library-bound copies are in rough shape due to heavy use.

The covers are inviting and the raves on the inside promise a classic read.  So naturally, I put myself on the hold list for Bone Volume 1: Out From Boneville and waited patiently.  Eventually, I got my hands on a copy and was immediately drawn into the story.
Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone are three Bone cousins who have been kicked out of their hometown, Boneville, due to Phoney Bone's con man ways (he routinely tricks the people of Boneville out of their gold and the townspeople had enough of it).  The Bone people are beings that resemble marshmallow-colored smurfs, but the three featured in the comics are easy to tell apart.  Phoney Bone is the sinister-looking trickster; Smiley Bone is the tall, goofy, good-natured one; and Fone Bone is the brave, sensible one, which also means he is our protagonist.

After being run out of Boneville, the Bone cousins find themselves in a strange valley inhabited by humans, fearsome rat creatures, dragons who may or may not exist, and a talking bug named Ted, among other beings.  They are soon taken in by a kind (and beautiful) young woman named Thorn and her ornery grandmother, Gran'ma Ben.

Fone Bone is so adorable.
Bone is a delightful mix of humor, action, and real emotion.  I appreciated the recurring gags Smith included throughout.  (Fone Bone's favorite book is Moby Dick, and whenever he reads it aloud, the people surrounding him immediately fall asleep; the two main rat creatures are obsessed with quiche and frequently threaten to cook the Bone cousins into one; and so on).  Phoney Bone has a new plan to swindle the people of the valley each volume, and Fone Bone falls increasingly in love with the lovely Thorn.

The series isn't just a string of misadventures caused by Phoney Bone and his cousins.  Underlying the amusing hijinks is a thread of danger and a complex mythology.  They're living in a fantasy world, after all, so there's plenty of magic and a good dose of mystery.  Gran'ma Ben has secrets - secrets that involve her granddaughter Thorn - and before long, the Bone cousins are caught up in it.  The fate of the entire valley depends on their actions.

Like any comic book series, some volumes are better than others.  (I felt the fifth volume in particular dragged.  Most of it centered around a mountain lion named Roque Ja who wasn't as funny as Smith intended him to be.)  But they're never not entertaining, and the art is consistently a treat.  Smith's artwork is cartoony without being too exaggerated.  Each character is distinct, the colors are bold and attractive to the eye, and facial expressions are easily read (and frequently hilarious).

The rat creatures have missed out on a delicious quiche.
I finished the ninth and final volume, Crown of Horns, two nights ago and was not disappointed.  Smith wrapped up all of the plotlines believably, gave the reader a solid conclusion, and still left me wanting more.  Fortunately, there is more!  Smith and his cohorts have written two prequels and a companion novel.  I'm interested to see if the novel gets any use at the library.  (Sidenote: Would you shelve it with the graphic novels or the juvenile fiction?)

I think Bone is that rare comic book series that appeals to comics fans as well as newbies.  It's got wide appeal: reluctant readers will be drawn in by the bright illustrations and great humor, while more sophisticated readers will appreciate the complex mythology and main plotline about Gran'ma Ben and Thorn.  Even readers who are unable to grasp the full meaning of the plot will be entertained by the antics of Phoney and Smiley Bone.

If you've yet to pick up this series, do yourself a favor and see what the kids love so much.  Bone is a great example of what kid lit should be: fun, funny, and meaningful.

Continue reading...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sad News

So today, my regular teen volunteer came downstairs carrying a pile of books. She asked me if I'd read any of them and what I thought.

One of those books was L. K. Madigan's Flash Burnout. I gave her an impromptu book talk about how it's one of those stories that sticks with you. The main character is full of heart and he pursues his passion for art, even if it might get him in trouble.

My teen checked it out immediately.

It's with that I pass on the word that L. K. Madigan has lost her battle. She died today.

You'll remember a few of us talked about this just recently. This news is heavy and hard to take, knowing what she'd brought to the table in YA Lit so far and the potential she had to bring so much more.

But with that, I urge you to pick up her books. Go to the store. Buy them. You will be moved by Flash Burnout. Then try her Mermaid's Mirror -- a story that, despite being out of my comfort zone, I still quite enjoyed. It's about a mermaid, but it's a story about family and coming to terms with the fact not every family is normal. In fact, no family is. And that is precisely what makes a family what it is.

Though her time was cut short, we can keep her writing alive by continuing to talk about it, continuing to introduce her work to young (and not young!) readers alike.

Continue reading...

What didn't work for me

Once in a while we read books that don't work for us. It just doesn't click with what we want to be reading, and we can't get into a good groove with the story the author wants to tell (because reading is a conversation between the reader and the writer). And the thing is, that is okay. Not everything will work for us, and we don't need to apologize for not liking something. Key, though, is understanding and appreciating who the book will work for -- who will get something out of this and hit that great stride with the writer? Here are two books I've read recently that just didn't connect with me and some thoughts on exactly who they will work for.

Jenna and Jonah's Fauxmance by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin: This romantic comedy is about Charlie and Fielding, a girl and a boy, who star in a hit television show for tweens. The book follows their adventures in keeping up appearances as fools in love with one another, and it's told through each of their voices. It's completely light-hearted and full of humor, especially pointed at television dramas reminiscent of those you'd see on ABC Family or the Disney Channel. But for me, I didn't see enough distinction between their voices nor did I feel the pull to care about what happened to either character to continue reading past page 100. The writing is fine, if not a bit corny, but the voices get a little lost in the story line. I feel like this book, had it been written five years ago at the height of shows like iCarly and Hannah Montana, would have been a lot more relevant than it is today. But this is me speaking as a twenty-something with little connection to television for tweens.

That said, this book will work for tween readers and younger teen readers. They will understand the humor completely, and it will be easy for them to connect the Jenna and Jonah show to their experiencing watching similar shows on tv. Readers looking for something mindless and funny will find a lot to enjoy here. GalleySmith, while she points out some of the same challenges I had, liked this book quite a bit and can offer much more insight into what really worked.

XVI by Julia Karr: I really love Kim's review of this title and hope people pop over there to read it in entirety. She really hit up the highlights of what works in XVI and I agree with them entirely. But as a reader, I had a hard time falling into Nina's world. In those moments I felt I was there, something new would pop up and prevent me from really understanding what was going on. But you know, this is what works for many readers; for me, it was challenging. I had more questions than answers, and though I made it most of the way through this one (250 pages), I didn't feel connected enough to Nina to want to know if they were ever answered. This book, though, did surprise me in a good way: by the description and the cover, I really thought it would focus on the idea of becoming a sexteen, but it didn't. It was a lot heavier in themes and ideas than that, which I appreciated. So even though I didn't finish it, I did like this and felt it hit on some issues that are important and relevant.

As far as appeal, I direct you again to Kim's review. This is a great read for dystopian fans, as well as those who enjoy books like Scott Westerfeld's The Uglies or M. T. Anderson's Feed. Part of me wonders if this is the kind of book I would adore on audio -- it has all of the right elements and perhaps by hearing, rather than seeing them, I would fall more easily into this world. I will say this much, though: I might revisit this book in a few months. I'm still thinking about it, which itself says something about the content.

Continue reading...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Double Take: Fearful Girls in Pretty Dresses

This pair of books sharing a cover image aren't even out yet, but they'll come out within a month of one another. . .across the pond from one another. It's an image I really like, as I think the feeling it gives is spot on for both stories.

First up:

The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell, which comes out March 7 by Harcourt. I really love the coloring in this one, as it reminds me of an old sepia photograph. The image itself looks like a modern Cinderella, with a girl in a pretty dress running. But unlike the horrible trend of sullen girls in pretty dresses, this one reminds me a lot more of a scared girl caught in a moment. She's not weak or broken. The story itself is a historical fantasy, so the cover is spot on. The thin font done in gold adds to the historical feeling. And this cover is much, much better than the original one I saw for this months ago, which is this:

This one doesn't work as well for me. Not only that, but it reminds me of this one:

Ahem. Back to the double take at hand. The Vespertine cover which I really like is replicated by Eden Maguire's (of the "Beautiful Dead" series) forthcoming Dark Angel:

This one will release in the UK by Hodder Books in April (and from the looks of it may be available in the US sometime in August). I really dig the red on this -- it pops. But what I think I like more is that despite how it's the same image as The Vespertine, the coloring gives it a completely different feel. This book gives no hint of being historical -- and it's not -- but rather a sort of dark romance with hints of the paranormal -- which it is. The superimposed woods behind the girl in the red dress really adds to the creepy feeling. The font on this one for the title is perfect too, thick and loopy in the style many other paranormal type books have.

I don't think either one of these covers does it better; I like both capture the feeling of the book perfectly.

Do you prefer one to the other?

Continue reading...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dark Mirror by MJ Putney

Sometimes, you go into a book a little skeptical because it's out of your usual taste. It's not something you'd tend to pick up on your own. But then you open it and realize you're more than half way through and are enjoying it a lot. And then you're eager to talk about it.

That was exactly my experience with MJ Putney's first young adult novel, Dark Mirror, due out March 1 by St. Martin's Griffin.

It's 1803 and Victoria -- Tory -- Mansfield has an idea what her life will be like: she's grown up in a family with a real name and status, so she's pretty much set. She'll marry well and she'll be wealthy and admired for life.

That is, until she discovers a deep secret buried in her family's history: she has a magical power. Horrified to discover this about herself, she tries to hide it, but when tragedy strikes at a party, she can't help but use her talents to save the life of another person, even if it means she's found out. Her father wastes no time in disciplining his daughter for causing such a scene and sends her to Lackland Academy, a school meant to rid children of the evils. See, it's a time of war in England, and a time when everyone is on edge about any person who is slightly different. They could be enemies, so it's necessary to reform these people and get them in line. And don't even begin to think this helps a wealthy family's reputation, either.

When she arrives at the Academy, she's worried about life with a cold roommate and worried about her ability to reform enough to gain the trust of her family again. But she won't be worried too long about it when she discovers others at the Academy might want to lure her into using her power for good, rather than suppressing it.

Sounds good so far, right? It's a nice fantasy storyline. But wait: this gets better.

One day while meeting with the other rebellious Academy students, Tory gets off course in the underground tunnels they meet in and falls into a mirror. Not just any mirror, mind you, but a mirror that when she falls into it, she's sent forward in time to World War II. Tory meets the ancestors of one of her rebellious Academy friends and discovers what was once her school no longer stands as it used to. War and time have demolished everything she knows, and with fear everywhere, Tory begins to think about how she can help these people -- and she realizes her power, combined with that of those she knows from her 1803 Academy -- might be able to change the course of the war entirely.

Putney's novel is a fast-paced historical fantasy that really hooked me from page one. This is a plot-driven novel, and that is something you must keep in mine while reading. I didn't get to know Tory all that well when reading, nor did I get to know Allarde, her romantic interest. But that's okay, actually, because this is a book about a story. Tory and her classmates each have interesting powers within them: she has the power to fly and one of her companions is able to change the weather. These, along with a host of other powers, when used together have the ability to change the course of history. And why wouldn't they?

What I liked most about this book were the realizations that Tory had throughout. As a reader, I kept wondering what it would be like were I transformed backwards in time nearly two centuries; I wouldn't be typing this blog post nor would I be able to pick up my groceries by car. Well, imagine the reverse: imagine being thrust ahead two centuries? Tory and her classmates are completely stunned to see moving vehicles, to learn about planes and what destruction those and boats can cause, and they're blown away by things like indoor bathrooms. Although smaller pieces in the bigger book, I think these were among my favorite parts -- I really felt I got to know the characters, but I also felt like it really nailed the historical aspects of the story for me. On a larger level, though, are the ah ha moments Tory has about how history is repetitive and how small things can completely change end results. When she's in her original time period, Britain is at war with France and the country is fearful of anyone slightly suspicious; in her time travel existence, Britain is engaged in a war with Germany and the Nazis, and anyone suspicious is considered an enemy. Then there's the entire idea of Merlin's mirror and how that reflects on these same realizations; by melding mythology into the story line and making it a key component, as readers we, too, see just how much our reality is shaped by our own fantasy.

If you weren't aware, Putney is well known for her adult romance novels, and she uses that background in building a romance between Tory and Allarde, a boy she meets early on in her time at the Academy. As readers, we are never completely certain where their interactions will lead, but we have an inkling that something intense will build between them. But these scenes are well done and add a lot to the characters and our understanding of their motives.

The writing in Dark Mirror is serviceable. It's not bad but it's not spectacular, and I think that's sort of how it needs to work when the story being told is so complex. I found some passages a little clunky, and some of the romantic passages felt a little cliche for me. But because story is at the center of the novel, this is all forgivable.

My biggest qualm with the story, though, is two fold: this is the first book in a series, and I feel like book can stand alone perfectly. That is, except for the prologue. I know the prologue meant to serve as a big of a background setting for why magic was worrisome in this historical moment, but it never came to a satisfying conclusion for me. It will likely be woven into the greater series; however, because I'm satisfied with how the story concluded, I don't necessarily desire more in the end. I kind of like where it stops. Another small issue I had was one of my own as a reader -- I did not want to suspend my belief that it takes Tory so long to realize she even holds a magical power. It's hard for me to believe she was clueless for 15 years about her ability to fly. This, though, I think goes back to my desire for stronger character development and focus on Tory's internal dialogue.

Putney's novel will have wide appeal to fantasy fans, as well as fans of historical fiction. This is the kind of novel that will appeal not only to teens but also to adults, as it has the right elements to satisfy both. By not giving Tory too much internal dialogue or too many moments that feel teenage (which you do and should get in a solid historical or contemporary title), the appeal is wider. Dark Mirror surprised me, since it's not usually my kind of read, but I liked it. Despite having to suspend my beliefs on some stuff, this book worked really well for me. There were so many things to grab on to and enjoy, and readers of fantasy, historical, romance will enjoy this, as will those who enjoy a good genre-bending tale where story is at the core of the book.

And lucky you! St. Martin's Griffin is kindly offering a copy of Putney's book for one reader. Fill out the form below, and I'll pick a winner the second week of March.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

In My Mailbox (24)

Welcome to another edition of In My Mailbox, hosted by Kristi at The Story Siren. It's a weekly showcase of the books received for review, picked up at the library, or purchased in the past week.

It was another quiet week here, though I did do quite a bit more shopping than originally planned. I did pick up a few titles through GalleyGrab, including the forthcoming Elizabeth Scott, Hannah Moskowitz, and Jenny Han, which I'm loading up on my Nook now.

For review:

Father of Lies by Ann Turner (available now from HarperTeen): Little gets me more excited than coming home to a hard copy of a book! This is a retelling of the Salem Witch Trials and it sounds like it's up my alley.


As you've likely heard, a number of Borders stores are closing. I went to the nearest one to me closing (which, ahem, also happens to be the nearest large book store to me, period) to see what I could pick up. I picked up quite a few things.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen: Herein I admit to never reading a full Jane Austen novel in my life, despite majoring in English (my specialty was more writing than British Lit). This little ditty will show up again on the blog -- Jackie and I have a little project up our sleeves to help other readers who haven't read this one pick it up (and to leave those who have read it enjoying it a little bit differently).

The Last Good Place of Lily Odilon by Sarah Beritia: This is a mystery I've been wanting to read for a little while, and when I saw it sitting there on a near empty shelf, I decided there was no better time.

Her and Me and You by Lauren Strasnick: I read Strasnick's first book, Nothing Like You, and reviewed it here, so I'm interested in seeing what her second has to offer.

Dangerous Angels: The Weezie Bat Books by Francesca Lia Block: I've never read any of her books, and Block's one of my best friend's favorite authors. Since I've inflicted a ton of books upon her, I thought it would only be fair to return the favor. I also love that it's an omnibus.

Roses & Bones: Myths, Tales, and Secrets by Francesca Lia Block: Again, same reason as above. Block's really sort of a ground breaker in YA lit and was the rage when I was a teen. But I never read her.

Split by Swati Avasthi: I don't own this one and since it won the Cybils award, I keep thinking about it. I want to reread it, which in itself says something about the power of this book. I snagged the last copy.

I like to call this small selection my comfort reading collection.

The Essential Calvin and Hobbes
by Bill Watterson: Have I ever mentioned that Calvin and Hobbes is my favorite cartoon ever? Well it is. I have a few books on my shelves and am excited to add another. Calvin and Hobbes always cheer me up.

Lovestruck Summer by Melissa Walker: I love this book, and I love Quinn. I cannot wait to revisit this one on a bad day (or on one of the inevitable cold days still in my future).

The Pigman by Paul Zindel: My husband and I got into a good conversation about how this was THE book we both read in middle school. It's such a classic and still shows up in tribute in other ya books.

And finally, I bought one more book....

A Shore Thing by Snooki: After I laugh my way through it, this will make one heck of a white elephant gift, won't it?

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Double Take: Friday Spirits

Kick back this Friday with another double take, and this one calls for celebration. I mean, whoever said you can't drink champagne from a straw?

The Celebutantes by Amanda Goldberg and Ruthanna Khalighi Hopper was published in 2008 by St. Martin's Griffin. This lady's drinking from two straws. I love the way the red lips pop on this cover.

Drink Slay Love by Sarah Beth Durst will be published in September by Margaret McElderry/Simon and Schuster. This book's about a vampire attacked by a were-unicorn (I'm sold!). The cover model on this one isn't the same as the book above, but the set up and execution are darn similar.

I like both of these, with the slight advantage to Drink Slay Love only because I like the way the red pops against the pale skin coloring. Also: she's drinking with a soda straw that has a red line on it and all. Classy!

Do you prefer one to the other?

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rival by Sara Bennett Wealer

Kathryn and Brooke do not get along. The girls are seniors and both actively involved in the school choir. Calling it involved would be an understatement, actually: both are passionate about singing, and both have an opportunity to perform at the Blackmore Young Artists Contest, a huge honor that comes with an even huger check for the winner. For Kathryn, this money means the possibility of attending college to pursue her passion. For Brooke, it's much less about the money and much more about proving to her family -- especially her father -- she's got talent and that she's worthy of their support.

But will their bitter rivalry be what causes both girls to falter on stage? More than that, though, what even caused the rift between the girls in the first place? Can it be repaired?

Sara Bennett-Wealer's Rival has pulled me from a reading rut. I found this to be a refreshing book, and one that will resonate with readers strongly. First and foremost, what stood out to me was that the format served the story and the characters perfectly. This story is told in dual voices, beginning with Kathryn and then moving to Brooke, and it is also told through dual time periods: the girls' senior year and their junior year. Setting the book up this way gives us their current moments in time but also leads us into understanding what created their bitter rivalry. It's a slow reveal because of this set up, but it needs to be.

What I loved about the use of multiple perspectives in this novel is what usually doesn't work in other stories set up like this: I felt like both characters had distinct voices. Both Brooke and Kathryn believed the other one had everything enviable. Kathryn believed Brooke to be made of money and privileged and Brooke believed Kathryn was beautiful and the kind of girl she'd want to be around to become much more than she could ever be alone. But the truth of the matter was Brooke was dealing with an absent father and aching heart because of it -- not to mention one of the sourest best friends I've read in a long time in Chloe -- and Kathryn's challenged by money problems and the fact her only true friend is Matt. As readers, we get to see both sides of the story and understand why each girl envies the other and why neither is truly a mean girl or one without intention.

Any story focused on the idea of a competition has high stakes at play, and this one is no different. I'll be honest in saying I was a little let down in the competition aspects; I would have loved more detail on the singing, the music, and the fierce vocal battling required to be a stand out singer. But really, this isn't a story about the competition. It's a story about Brooke and Kathryn coming to terms with the big rift that occurred between them. There is huge build up to this through the story, and it's not until more than half way through we find out what caused the two of them to go at odds. And it has to do with both girls' insecurities. I wasn't as impressed with this as I wanted to be, but this leads me to my other big point in this story -- voice.

Kathryn and Brooke might be some of the more realistic high schoolers I've read. Their dialogue, their rivalry, their interactions, and sheer insecurities mixed with their passion in social and artistic endeavors clicked. I know these girls working with teens today, and I knew these girls when I was a teen myself. So, despite being a little let down in what the big deal was that caused the two of them to be at war with one another, it's extremely realistic and honest. Most readers won't think twice about it because it's an easy buy. It makes sense.

Something that resonated with me as a reader and made me so sympathetic toward Brooke were her father issues. I don't feel like many books do a great job of capturing what it's like to be the daughter of an absent, too-busy-for-you father; fortunately, I think Bennett-Wealer nailed it. I wish stuff like this had been there for me when I was younger. While it's not the big part of the story, for those who are dealing with issues like this, Brooke's emotional highs and lows and the conclusion she reaches at the end of the story will really resonate. It is extremely realistic and not once overdone, despite the fact it could have been, given her father's career.

For fans of romance in their stories, there is a bit in Rival, but I appreciated this wasn't really what the girls fought over. I almost could have done without it, but because of the book's audience, I understand why it's there. And boy, here's another book where a guy best friend turns out to be the best kind of friend one can ask for. Matt gets crapped on and still stands by Kathryn's side, and how I really loved him because of it. He's a great secondary character and one I wouldn't have minded even more of throughout the story.

Pass Rival on to fans of shows like Glee, but I think this book would go over quite well with those who enjoy Sarah Dessen or Elizabeth Scott. Sure, there's the "mean girl" and "revenge" aspects to this story that don't come out in Dessen or Scott, but the voices here will match quite well. I'd love to see this one read alongside Caridad Ferrer's When the Stars Go Blue, too, if for no other reason than the heightened emotions and experiences that come through fierce artistic competition and pressure. Another interesting read with this one would be Siobhan Vivian's Same Difference for the issues of friendship, competition, and the arts. I don't necessarily think this is the strongest read alike to Pretty Little Liars, to which it's drawn many comparisons. But try it -- you might win over readers to stronger, less melodramatic contemporary.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

XVI by Julia Karr

In XVI, author Julia Karr creates a dystopian future familiar to those of us who have read 1984 or Feed (and countless other books I won’t name for the sake of brevity). In Karr’s future, the government has become big brother, although it is not referred to with those words. The Governing Council keeps track of all minors (those under 16) using a GPS chip embedded beneath the skin, keeps poor people off the street by forcing them to take part in medical testing, and gives girls from lower tiers (think socio-economic classes, but more rigidly defined) the opportunity to advance themselves by applying for the FeLS (Female Liaison Specialist) service.

The Governing Council goes hand in hand with the Media. The Media is ubiquitous, even more so than in our own world. Advertisements blare out of every single shop and are broadcast without pause on all public transit. People – and not just the young – are plugged in constantly to their PAVs (personal audio/video), whether they are home, at work, or out in public. The Media tells people, particularly young girls, how to behave – how to dress, how to flip your hair flirtatiously, how to act once hitting the age of majority.

Which brings us to the title. When girls turn sixteen, they are required by law to receive a tattoo on their wrists that reads “XVI.” This indicates that they’ve reached the legal age of sixteen and can now consent to sex. The Governing Council argues that this helps protect underage girls from unwanted sexual advances. You can imagine the effect it really has. I was initially put off by this aspect, since it seems so unpleasant and so very obviously a Statement About Our World Today. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is a small part of the story, despite the fact that it’s the only thing the book jacket discusses. It’s more of a background feature that helps to set the stage rather than the main plot thread.

Living in this world is our protagonist, Nina Oberon. She’s about to turn sixteen and is dreading the tattoo and all it represents. She lives with her mother and her half-sister, Dee, in Chicago. Then something terrible happens (fairly early on, but I won’t spoil you), and Nina learns that her parents (including her long-dead father) were part of an underground resistance group fighting back against the oppressive Governing Council and the omnipresent Media. This puts her and her sister in a dangerous position. Luckily, she has support in the form of a few good friends, a rather cute boy, and her grandparents. But the Governing Council is not going to leave Nina and her friends and family alone. What’s more, there’s the mystery of FeLS and what really goes on there to discover.

I really liked the world that Karr created. (Well, I didn’t really like it, but you know what I mean.) I like that she included some slang, and I also appreciate that she didn’t go overboard with it. I like that she included a lot of little details that really helped me to visualize the future world. The tiers, FeLS, Media, Moon Settlement Day, and so on worked together to make the world more complex, believable, and interesting than many I’ve come across in other recent dystopias.  I also really appreciated that she didn't write down to the reader.  It's initially a little confusing to decipher what all the unfamiliar words and acronyms mean, but Karr gives us the necessary information through context.  This is preferable to paragraph-length asides that tell, rather than show, the details of the world.  Lastly, I liked the characters, which were fairly distinct from each other and behaved in mostly believable ways throughout.

There were a few things that bothered me about XVI. The writing is mostly smooth, but there were a few clumsy passages and odd word choices. For example, cars and other modes of transportation are referred to as “trannies” – short for transits. This would make anyone do a double-take on first read.

There’s also a few worrying passages that veer pretty close to victim-blaming. Due to the XVI tattoo and other social ills, sexual violence is pretty common. Nina’s best friend Sandy has bought into the Media culture and likes to wear super revealing clothing and flirt up a storm. This leads Nina’s grandparents to remark to her "Does your mother know you're wearing that? It's too revealing. It's not safe...dressing like that gives boys the impression that you don't want to be [a virgin]." It’s not exactly “She’s asking for it,” but it’s close enough to make me uncomfortable.

Nina occasionally makes some dumb decisions that seem out of sync with her character but work well to drive the plot. On more than one occasion, Nina goes out alone when she knows that some very bad people are after her. I understand that the plot needs to be driven, particularly in a story like this, but it seemed disingenuous to make Nina’s stupidity the vehicle. Other than these blips, she seems to be a pretty intelligent girl.

Karr pulls no punches when it comes to the ending. It wraps up the main storyline – all of it – and only leaves a few minor threads dangling. In other words, I don’t mind that there’s a sequel in the works. I look forward to learning more about the world, in particular how the tier system works and what happens to Nina and the resistance after that killer ending. But I reiterate, the major threads were all resolved. I’m so grateful to Karr for this and wish more books took this approach.

Copy obtained from the public library.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Display This: Prom

It's early to be thinking about it, but actually, according to The Numerati by Stephen Baker*, Prom Madness begins in January. Dress sales surge at this time of the year. Might be worth considering getting your kids geared up for the trials and tribulations that come with what is heralded as one of the landmark high school events: Prom.

There's been a surge of prom books lately, so here's a taste of what's new and what's classic in the world of prom lit.

Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg: A remake of the Jane Austen classic Pride and prejudice set in high school and prom plays a big part in the making or breaking of a romance.

Will Work for Prom Dress by Aimee Ferris: This one's about a girl who has to -- you guess it -- work to make the money to get her dress. Bonus for Ferris's book is this rockin' website where different authors have shared their prom photos and stories. I sense this has potential for additional displays.

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson: Even though Ashley has no interest in attending prom, she might end up being the one coordinating the whole thing, whether she likes it or not.

Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress by Tina Ferrero: Nicolette was dumped before prom and now all she has to show for it is a dress. What's a girl to do?

Prom Anonymous by Blake Nelson: Chloe's going to prom, even though she doesn't have a date. Will things with her best friends make this a most memorable night for good reasons or bad ones?

Prom Kings and Drama Queens by Dorian Cirrone: Can Emily channel the energy and power of a hurricane sharing her name her senior year of high school? She'll sure give it a shot. And maybe she'll finally get a chance with her biggest crush.

21 Proms: This collection of stories share the highs and lows of prom night. It's by a ton of big name authors.

Prom Nights from Hell: Another collection of short stories, but this one is much less on the realistic dramas of prom and more on the horror and paranormal prom tales.

Prom Dates from Hell by Rosemary Clement-Moore: This installment of the Maggie Quinn series showcases girl wonder battling the evils of high school prom.

Once Upon a Prom series by Jeanine Le Ny: This is a three book series that tells the story of prom from three different girls' perspectives. And here's an awesome display idea -- when you stack the three books, you have a whole girl (book 2 is her body and book 3 are her shoes). Get your display set up a little differently with this one.

Perfectly Dateless by Kristin Billerbeck: Daisy's got a countdown of the days left till prom. But with her parents' strict rules about not dating, will she even get to go? This is a clean read and I believe has a bit of a Christian bent, too, for those who enjoy that genre.

Fat Hoochie Prom Queen by Nico Medina: An all-out brawl-out for who gets to be queen of the prom.

How I Created My Perfect Prom Date by Todd Strasser: This is an alternating perspective story, told through the eyes of the newly popular Nicole and her prom-date-to-be (maybe!) Chase.

Prom Crashers by Erin Downing: Emily falls in love with Ethan. . .then promptly loses his phone number and can't track him down. She and a group of her friends get busy seeking him out -- on prom night of all nights!

This is just a sampling of the number of prom books out there. If you know of any others, share them in the comments. I'd love to see more books with this theme that talk about alternates to prom in a positive light -- for the girls and guys who purposely choose not to attend prom and don't regret it. And maybe those who got a lot of flack about it, too.

* I've mentioned how I read a lot of non-fiction, right? And a lot of it is super niche? This one is about numbers and statistics. And I LOVED every bit of it.

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